In his opening speech to the final session of parliament in Cape Town before his retirement at the next election, President Mandela conceded some failings of the African National Congress government but underlined that "the foundation has been laid - the building is in progress".
Summing up the five years since he became the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Mr Mandela said: "For a country that was the polecat of the world ... the doors of the world have opened, precisely because of our success in achieving things that humanity as a whole holds dear. Of this we should be proud."
Confounding the "merchants of despair", Mr Mandela listed the government's achievements - water in 80 per cent of homes, 63 per cent of households connected to the electricity grid and 1.3 million new telephones.
He said the 700,000 houses built or under construction fell short of the government's target of one million but boasted that old age pensions had been increased by 4 per cent this year and A-level results were improving.
The President - who will be succeeded by his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, after elections in which the ANC is certain to secure a majority - had been expected to announce a poll date between 18 and 27 May.
However, as President Mandela began speaking yesterday, Mr Mbeki handed him a note, presumed to have requested that he excise the possible election dates. The National Party is bringing a high court case against the ANC over alleged irregularities in voter registration. The case could delay the election.
President Mandela conceded that "difficult areas" were crime, corruption and unemployment but omitted xenophobia - a growing concern. He also rounded on critics who focus on the negative aspects of the new South Africa. "We slaughter one another in the stereotypes and mistrust that linger in our heads and the words of hate we spew from our lips," he said. "We slaughter one another and our country by the manner in which we exaggerate its weaknesses to the wider world."
"The critical act of reconciliation is the dismantling of what remains of apartheid practices and attitudes. Reconciliation, without this major step, will be transient, the ode of false hope on the lips of fools," he said.
President Mandela's 80-minute speech to a packed, multi-coloured parliament - ranging from grey suits on the opposition benches to saris and bright African dresses on the government side - drew for its main message on the Rainbow Nation spirit that he has come to embody. Even though the 80-year-old President wore a dark suit rather than one of the bright shirts he favours, in other respects the settingobliged. There was Africandancing outside the parliament building and ululating as MPs and guests arrived, as if for a fashion show.
Charlie Tambo, the flamboyant television presenterson of the late anti- apartheid militant Oliver Tambo, posed with his white wife, Rachel, who was wearing a bright red traditional Xhosa dress.
One National Party MP, Isak van Zyl, and his daughter Carina, wore the 19th-century outfits of the Afrikaner voortrekkers. He said: "I think Afrikaners should wear their traditional outfits just as the Xhosa and Zulus do."
But the Rainbow Nation spirit contrasted sharply with the overwhelmingly humourless mood of the grey-suited opposition benches of the New National Party and the Freedom Front. At one point, President Mandela, in calling for South Africans to "assert our collective identity as Africans" turned to them with an aside: "When I say Africans I mean everybody for whom the continent of Africa is their home." Everyone applauded except the grey suits.
And they did not so much as tap their toes as the president left the chamber, to a standing ovation and the chanting of "Nelson Mandela - hahona atSwana lewena" - a kind of Sesotho equivalent of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow".
But then many people believe that the departure of Nelson Mandela means the end of South Africa as a Rainbow Nation - where an entire people can draw inspiration from the mere existence of one man who suffered. Now it will be over to the politicians.